The Dozens

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"The dozens has been a vital source for commercial styles from ragtime to rap. But it also remains its original, disreputable self, a game kids play to amuse, annoy, entertain, impress and hurt one another. I am fascinated by it, as many people have been before me, but I will not pretend I have explained or understood it fully or can define its meanings, permutations, or limits. It has been many things to many people, and presumably will be many more, continuing to buzz, bite, float, and sting."

That's what Elijah Wald says on the last page of his provocative new book, THE DOZENS--A HISTORY OF RAP'S MAMA. Wald, a musician as well as a writer (he won a Grammy in 2002), has long been interested in the dozens--the derisive, mostly obscene insults, jokes, ditties and rhymes that African Americans have developed into something of an art form over the centuries.

Swearing duels between people are common to the entire human race, of course. Wald's historical research turns up "insult games" and "joking relationships" that were popular pastimes in such farflung parts of the world as Polynesia, Greenland, England and Indonesia ("where sitting in the tops of the coconut-palms tapping the sap, men sing mocking songs at the expense of their companions in the neighboring trees"). Even the pre-Islamic Arabs "elevated abuse and derision of an adversary to a formal art," and Islamic nobles engaged in "elaborate contests in invective and vituperation."

Playing the dozens might be a universal experience, but without a doubt African Americans have been the ones to specialize in it, transform it from subterranean folklore into a billion-dollar industry whose lineage goes back to slavery times and proceeds up through minstrel shows, the blues, hip-hop, rap, "Snap" books, TV and YouTube shows.

The d.j. Grandmaster Flash perhaps summed it up best: "If it's one thing black folks in the ghetto know how to do, it's talk shit. Been talking shit, singing shit, chanting shit, rhyming shit, and mumbling shit from day one."

(Oxford University Press, $24.95 hdbnd)